Happy Fish Are Fueling a Battle to Preserve Offshore Rigs as Artificial Reefs

For aquatic wildlife, ’platform habitat is preferred to natural habitat’
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Sprawled on the bottom level of a massive oil rig more than 11 miles from the shores of Long Beach, the half-dozen sea lions grow louder as our boat glides closer. One chews on a fish, holding it with long flippers, while nearly 300 feet above it rises the Ellen, a Mad Max-worthy assemblage of metal tubing and cables that pumps about 2,600 barrels of crude every day. A short distance away, attached by a latticework bridge, is its little sister, the Elly.

If it’s strange to see wildlife on such a foreboding structure as it whirs and grinds, it’s stranger to think of all the sea life among the oil platform’s mooring lines and steel legs as
they extend about 260 feet to the ocean floor. Toward the surface zebra-striped sheepsheads, orange Garibaldis, and spiny cabezons swim among colonies of barnacles and mussels; farther down, you find scallops, sponges, and sea stars extending to the seabed, where rockfish and shrimp and other crustaceans make their home. Coral grows so freely that, to keep platforms from being undermined, oil operators scrape the legs every few years, removing up to a two-foot layer.

“The deeper you go, the more marine life there is,” says Cal State Long Beach marine biologist Chris Lowe as our 26-foot boat sways. Fifty-three years old, with a cap pulled low above tan cheeks and a thin goatee, he’s studied the Pacific for two decades. “The sheer biomass here is some of the most productive habitat on the planet,” he adds. That was the conclusion of a study published in 2014 by researchers at UC Santa Barbara, Occidental College, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. In one of Lowe’s own studies, which stretched from 2007 to 2009, he attached sensors to small fish around the platforms and relocated them as far as ten miles away. “Twenty-five percent of the fish went back to the platform we took them from,” he says. “We found fish would stay on the platform for months or years; some would hopscotch from other platforms. One we caught twice, and it went back twice. Platform habitat is preferred to natural habitat—how can that be?”

For people like Lowe, it’s an especially promising phenomenon at a time when natural marine habitat is being lost as a result of beachfront construction, water pollution (from fertilizer runoff, industrial contaminants, sunblock), and other human causes. So the 27 oil platforms off the Southern California coast are in a sense filling a void, even if the petroleum products they help produce are tied to the rising ocean temperatures that may enlarge that void. The big question is what to do with the structures when the drilling stops.

In 2010, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB2503, otherwise known as the Rigs-to-Reefs Law, which permits certain oil and gas platforms to be left in place rather than completely removed once their drilling days are done. It was a third attempt to pass such a law. Before the bill went through the state assembly, platform operators were required to take out decommissioned rigs in their entirety after the wellheads were plugged. It’s a messy affair that involves dismantling the above-water portion and then using saws or explosives to extricate the legs. Millions of animals—fish, but also what’s attached to the structures—die in the process. The tab could run into the tens of millions of dollars. Under Rigs-to-Reefs, owners of platforms whose conversion would offer a “net environmental benefit” and “substantial cost savings” could lop off the top of a platform, beginning 85 feet below the water’s surface so that vessels could pass safely above. A chunk of the savings would be deposited into a preservation fund.

But what might seem like a winning compromise has been looking like a loser. Opposition among environmental groups remains fierce, and participation in the voluntary program remains nonexistent—which people like state senator Robert Hertzberg, who represents the San Fernando Valley, blames on vagaries of the bill. “It was so bad that after five years, not a single oil company applied because the process didn’t work,” he says, calling the 2010 bill “a bureaucratic cluster.” So he introduced a subsequent bill intended to make it somewhat more attractive to oil companies to participate by reducing their payout and putting a commission, rather than the state’s Natural Resources Agency, in the lead oversight role of environmental review. It died in committee this past August.

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To those opposed to the original “Rigs- to-Grief” bill, as it’s known in some circles, Hertzberg’s bill was just one more step in the wrong direction. It’s been argued that the platforms contaminate the water with zinc, lead, and other toxins. However, Milton Love, a UC Santa Barbara marine biologist who has studied oil platforms for 21 years, hasn’t found evidence to support that claim—which surprises even him. “These are industrial facilities,” Love says. “They’re not making cotton candy out there and you might expect something is going on, but we just haven’t found it. That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything weird, just that our research hasn’t shown it.” As for those who remain unswayed by the ample research to suggest the benefits of keeping decommissioned rigs partly intact: “There are people who feel that, at the extreme, anything artificial in the ocean is inherently wrong, and they want anything artificial removed. Those folks don’t care about what marine life is living around the platform. They just want those platforms out of there.”

They might also consider the long-term good to be greater than the short-term costs to the environment. “Rigs-to-Reefs has become a newfound way to reduce the oil industry’s liability for removing waste they’ve created,” says Kathryn Phillips, the director of the Sierra Club’s California chapter. To her and many others, rigs didn’t belong there in the first place and don’t belong there, in any form, now. When I ask about the potential harm from removing a rig, Phillips counters, “Maybe the problem is the standards for how you remove them aren’t high enough.”

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Skepticism runs deep when it comes to Big Oil and the big spills associated with it. The 2015 Refugio pipeline leak in Santa Barbara had many residents recalling the 1969 platform-related oil spill in the area that sullied more than 35 miles of coastline and still shapes the debate over California offshore drilling. It doesn’t help that much of the research pointing to the rigs’ counterintuitive benefits was funded at least in part by oil interests, like the nonprofit California Artificial Reef Enhancement program, or CARE. “It’s a political hot potato,” says Lowe, whose own work has benefited from CARE dollars as well as from a USC Sea Grant. He acknowledges what seems like a strange bedfellow but insists that his findings remain unbiased. CARE’s board of directors includes several well-respected names in marine conservation. In the hard-fought world of research grants, scientists are often compelled to accept help from whoever’s willing to write a check, but separate work funded by the United States Geological Survey, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and several private institutions and universities has confirmed the findings about what wildlife havens the rigs seem to be.

Dan Pondella, a marine biologist at Occidental College, spent six years studying these rigs and their fish, coauthoring the 2014 research with Love. Though he doesn’t believe that his colleagues are biased because they’ve accepted funding from the oil industry, he tries to minimize skepticism by declining to take oil-funded research money. “I don’t get any support from CARE in any way,” he says. “The data was laid out very straightforward. We didn’t use any funny stats, we used very standard history models; it was a data-driven process. I didn’t hear any significant criticisms of the analysis. It was more of ‘we don’t want to hear anything good about oil platforms,’ and that’s fair—I understand that.”

Tom Raftican is less diplomatic, calling resistance to Rigs-to-Reefs a knee-jerk reaction. He’s the president of the Sportfishing Conservancy, an advocacy group that worked for years to get the 2010 law on the books and backed Hertzberg’s bill as well. Raftican is still disappointed by his failed attempt to stop four decommissioned rigs off the Santa Barbara coast from being removed in 1996. Through the conservancy he’s helped fund related research by the Ocean Science Trust and the California Ocean Protection Council. “You take a look at all the studies—it was actual science,” says Raftican. “And the results were overwhelmingly positive. Before the rigs were taken out of Santa Barbara in the 1990s, I used to fish out of there. I knew how valuable they were. It just doesn’t make sense to take them out.” So now he’s working to get legislation similar to Hertzberg’s on the books next year because it’s only a matter of time before a rig is declared dead. “They have an economic life span,” says Raftican. “At some point the oil companies are going to have to take them out or leave them in place.”

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Ann Scarborough Bull is biding her time, too. “It’s absolutely inevitable that decommissioning is going to happen,” says the environmental sciences section chief for the federal government’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The BOEM oversees the Ellen, the Elly, and 21 other Southern California platforms that reside in federal waters (the remainder are in state waters, which extend up to three miles offshore). She’s observed decommissioning in the Gulf of Mexico, where Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi implemented similar projects to transform rigs into artificial reefs, which don’t host as much life as those in Southern California and haven’t faced the same political challenges. Work through those challenges, she says, and the West Coast could be a model for compromise. “I think California has a real opportunity to provide a true example of what can possibly be done when you have a lot of interested stakeholders, including the state.”

Lowe is given to his own bouts of optimism, like when he envisions using a decommissioned rig to create an underwater lab with on-site housing above the water. What concerns him, though, is the oil market: “Because the price of oil has dropped so much, we’re asking for trouble,” Lowe says. “The costs to maintain platforms now are much higher than what they bring in, which means care and maintenance may not be as high as it was in the past. To have a spill or disaster because this thing has been in flux for so long, I wouldn’t be surprised. The state needs to make a decision.”

For his part, Senator Hertzberg plans to keep pushing. “I’m not giving up on this,” he says. “If you look around at the planet, this is a creative solution to move things forward rather than playing the old game that dominates politics. This is a great idea.”

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